Want to Help? Get the Facts, Not an Argument

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In this column I am going to take a slightly different viewpoint than my last two. In the last two columns I provide what I think is sound advice to founders of small businesses on how to deal with customers. In the last column I specifically singled out government customers.

In this column I want to move to the other side of the table and give some advice to my friends and colleagues in government about dealing with businesses who come to them with requests and, often, advice.

In my experience, it is an unfortunate fact that these kinds of conversations are often fruitless and frustrating on both sides of the table. Typically, the business arrives armed with arguments about why the current project, process or program does not serve their needs. The government officials will then typically ask what advice the business would have regarding how improvements could be made.

And the downward spiral begins.

At this point the conversation will often start to degenerate. The business will offer advice that, frankly, is almost certainly based on an incomplete appreciation of the facts and the context of the program. The government will then explain how those recommendations cannot be implemented because of facts not appreciated by the business.

This cycle will repeat. It will not go anywhere that is constructive for either side. The government will leave the meeting feeling that they have been misunderstood and unfairly judged by someone who does not understand how these things work. The business will leave the meeting feeling that the government is more interested in defending its actions than in solving real problems.

So… how to get past this impasse?

Well, the first thing to realize is that each participant is more focused on advice – on giving or refuting it – than on the facts. Neither side is really trying to solve a problem. Each participant really just wants to win the argument.

I think there is a way to break this cycle. In the last article I proposed some things that businesses can do. But I think there are also approaches that government officials could apply to the problem. My main suggestion is that government officials should not ask for advice. If you are on the government side of the table it is your job to solve the problem. Your options for solving it are constrained in many ways that are a fact of life in the public service. Getting advice from someone who doesn’t fully understand either the problem or its context is unlikely to be helpful.

What you do need is facts. You need to understand, for instance, why the current situation is a problem. After all, you did not create this program to cause a problem. It was supposed to solve one. But it doesn’t seem to be working. My advice is to resist the temptation to defend earlier decisions, instead get curious about why those decisions are being questioned.

And just like my advice to business, be slow to understand. Resist the temptation to jump ahead in the conversation and particularly avoid the temptation to ascribe motivations and objectives that you have not asked about. Your goal does not need to be to validate – or even agree with – the arguments proposed from the other side of the table. You goal should be to understand where those arguments really come from.

Armed with a better appreciation of how the world looks from the other side of the table you will then have to determine how (and whether) to accommodate those objections within the constraints and imperatives that are imposed on the process.

Only you can do this. Most business leaders and company representatives lack the understanding of government machinery and process to offer truly valuable solutions. And that isn’t, or should not be, their job. They will be most constructive if they offer clear explanations for how programs and policies are received and consumed by business. This is information that is genuinely hard to come by in government.

So, if you are a government official. Don’t ask “how can we help?” Instead ask “what is the problem?” and “why is that a problem?”

Don’t be defensive. Be curious.

Get valuable facts. Not free advice.

About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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